A fateful diagnosis

Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a condition affecting almost 1 million people over the age of 18 in the United States. It causes:

  • muscle weakness or spasms
  • fatigue
  • numbness or tingling
  • problems with vision or swallowing
  • pain

MS occurs when the body’s immune system attacks support structures in the brain, causing them to become damaged and inflamed.

Ann Romney, wife of U.S. Senator Mitt Romney, received a diagnosis of relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis in 1998. This type of MS comes and goes unpredictably. To reduce her symptoms, she combined traditional medicine with alternative therapies.

It was a crisp autumn day in 1998 when Romney felt her legs go weak and her hands became unexplainably shaky. Thinking back, she realized that she’d been tripping and stumbling more and more often.

Always the athletic type, playing tennis, skiing, and jogging regularly, Romney grew scared at the weakness in her limbs. She called her brother Jim, a doctor, who told her to see a neurologist as soon as she could.

At Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, an MRI of her brain revealed the telltale lesions characteristic of MS. The numbness spread to her chest. “I felt I was being eaten away,” she told the Wall Street Journal, courtesy of CBS News.

The primary treatment for MS attacks is a high dose of steroids injected into the bloodstream over the course of three to five days. Steroids suppress the immune system and calm its attacks on the brain. They reduce inflammation as well.

Although some people with MS require other medications to manage their symptoms, for Romney, steroids were enough to reduce the attacks.

However, the side effects from the steroids and other medications became too much to bear. To recover strength and mobility, she had her own plan.

The steroids helped with the attack, but they didn’t help the fatigue. “The unrelenting, extreme fatigue was suddenly my new reality,” she wrote. Then, Romney remembered her love of horses.

At first, she could only ride for a few minutes a day. But with determination, she soon regained her ability to ride, and with it, her ability to move and walk freely.

“The rhythm of a horse’s gait closely assimilates a human’s and moves the rider’s body in a fashion that enhances muscle strength, balance, and flexibility,” she wrote. “The connection both physical and emotional among horse and human is powerful beyond explanation.”

A 2017 study found that equine therapy, also called hippotherapy, can improve balance, fatigue, and overall quality of life in people with MS.

As her coordination returned, Romney’s leg remained numb and weak. She sought out the services of Fritz Blietschau, an Air Force mechanic turned reflexology practitioner near Salt Lake City.

Reflexology is a complementary therapy that involves massaging the hands and feet to cause changes in pain or other benefits elsewhere in the body.

A 2015 study examined reflexology and relaxation for fatigue in women with MS. Researchers found that reflexology was more effective than relaxation in reducing fatigue.

Romney also sought out acupuncture as a treatment. Acupuncture works by inserting slim needles into specific points on the skin. An estimated 20 to 25 percent of people with MS try acupuncture for relief of their symptoms.

Although some studies may have found it helps some patients, most specialists don’t think it offers any benefits.

“I don’t think anyone can prepare for a diagnosis such as this, but I was very fortunate to have the love and support of my husband, my family, and my friends,” Romney wrote.

Although she had her family by her side every step of the way, Romney felt that her personal attitude of self-reliance helped carry her through her ordeal.

“Even though I had the loving support of my family, I knew this was my battle,” she wrote. “I was not interested in going to group meetings or getting any help. After all, I was strong and independent.”

But Romney can’t do it all alone. “As time has passed and I’ve come to terms with living with multiple sclerosis, I’ve realized how wrong I was and how much strength you can gain through others,” she wrote.

She recommends that people living with multiple sclerosis, particularly the newly diagnosed, reach out and connect with others on the National Multiple Sclerosis Society’s online community.

Today, Romney deals with her MS without any medication, preferring alternative therapies to keep her sound, although sometimes this results in occasional flare-ups.

“This treatment program has worked for me, and I am very fortunate to be in remission. But the same treatment may not work for others. And everyone should follow the recommendations of his/her personal physician,” Romney wrote.